Showing solidarity: Federation leads mission to Israel
Israel at warVolunteering and bearing witness

Showing solidarity: Federation leads mission to Israel

The Pittsburghers saw where area donations were making a difference. Nearly 1,500 Pittsburghers have contributed $8 million for Israel since Oct. 7.

Margorie Manne and Jan Levinson volunteering with the Federation on its mission to Israel (Photo courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh)
Margorie Manne and Jan Levinson volunteering with the Federation on its mission to Israel (Photo courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh)

Nobody planned to meet Yosi.

While 11 Pittsburghers last month toured Sheba Medical Center — a 2,000-bed hospital in Tel HaShomer, near Tel Aviv — the 39-year-old IDF soldier simply approached them and asked if they would listen to his story.

An ambulance driver and father of five, Yosi braved a 14-hour-long firefight with terrorists on Oct. 7 in a northwestern swath of Israel’s Negev desert.

At Kibbutz Be’eri, just 2.5 miles from the Gaza border, Yosi estimated he rescued some 25 families — about 70 people. Hamas terrorists killed more than 130 men, women and children at the 75-year-old kibbutz, 10% of its residents.

Hamas terrorists shot Yosi several times, including in his legs. As he lay on the ground, bleeding and anticipating death, he said he prayed the Shema.

A medic, though, found Yosi and, after a traumatic day that foreshadowed the months of war that followed, he entered Sheba, which houses Israel’s National Center for the Rehabilitation of Injured Soldiers.

There, doctors installed a metal rod in what remained of his left leg. Many surgeries still await.

Yosi was one of dozens of people affected by the terrorist attacks that the Pittsburgh group met when they traveled to Israel from June 18 to 23. It was the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s second trip to the Jewish state since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, murdering more than 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages.

“We came to bear witness, we came to see our impact and we came to stand with Israel,” said Brian Eglash, the Federation’s senior vice president and chief development officer. “To be there and stand with Israel at this point in time was incredible.”

Sheba Medical Center, the leading hospital in the Middle East and an internationally recognized health care facility, was just one stop on the travelers’ itinerary. Pittsburghers visited the site of the Nova music festival, the Negev desert rave where Hamas terrorists committed brutal acts of sexual violence and murdered hundreds of people on Oct. 7.

“There were hundreds upon hundreds of pictures there,” Eglash said. “You really see the enormity of it. You see these young faces and they were murdered because they were Jewish. These are future generations that were extinguished.”

The travelers also met with families affected by the Oct. 7 attacks, with soldiers, and with municipal officials in Karmiel and Misgav, communities in Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether program.

They toured Sderot, the largest Israeli city in what often is dubbed “the Gaza envelope.” About 30,000 people lived there before the attacks; only about half have returned.

They traveled to Israel’s north, where tensions continue to mount with the terrorist group Hezbollah along the country’s border with Lebanon.

“The difference of participating in this mission versus two other times I have been in Israel since Oct. 7 is the focus not only on the south but on the north,” said Jeff Finkelstein, the Federation’s president and CEO. “Everyone is preparing for a potential conflict with Hezbollah. We heard that clearly from our ‘family’ in Karmiel and Misgav.”

The Pittsburghers saw where area donations were making a difference, Eglash said. Nearly 1,500 Pittsburghers have contributed $8 million for Israel since the Oct. 7 attacks. Jewish federations nationwide have collected some $847 million. More than $450 million already is allocated.

They also visited Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, which Pittsburgh’s Federation has pledged nearly $1 million to rebuild.

“When we traveled in December, it was still really, really raw … but civil society has really stepped up. And that’s where our dollars kicked in,” Eglash said.

Todd Rosenfeld, who was on the June trip, has visited Israel several times.

The Milwaukee-bred financial planner first visited the Jewish state in the 1980s, when he lived there with an immigrant family for six months. He’s returned twice after that — once on a 400-person Federation trip in the waning moments of the pandemic.

“Our purpose this time,” he said, “was just to show solidarity with the Israelis, to let them know we’ve got their backs.”

Rosenfeld said he expected to encounter emotional moments in post-10/7 Israel. Even those expectations were blown out of the water. For Rosenfeld, much of the trip was defined by Israeli resilience — even in the face of what seemed like almost insurmountable odds.

He met Idit Ohel, whose son, Alon, then a 22-year-old pianist planning to enter a musical conservatory, was taken captive by Hamas militants on Oct. 7 at the Nova festival. Alon arrived at the party at 5:30 a.m., about an hour before the attacks, The Times of Israel reported. He and others tried to flee by car; bullets whizzed from every direction.

Alon ran to a field shelter, possibly the same one where Israeli-American Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, was hiding. Terrorists found them and threw grenades into the shelter. The young men inside threw them back. Eventually, one went off.

Witnesses said Alon survived and was taken hostage. He lost his cellphone — he last texted his family at 8:08 a.m., phone records show — and a survivor brought it to Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva.

Idit Ohel refuses to give in to sadness.

“’I need to keep the frequency of my mood up because my son feels it,’” Idit Ohel told the Pittsburghers, Rosenfeld said. “These were just really amazing people, strong people.”

“(Idit Ohel) believes if you do good deeds for others, perhaps someone’s heart will open and someone in Gaza will help her son stay alive,” Eglash said.

“It was scary when I was thinking about going. But, being there, the resilience and hopefulness really shined through — despite the hurt,” Rosenfeld said. “Tel Aviv is thriving, Jerusalem is dynamic. When you walk the streets, you see all the posters of hostages — but you don’t know a war is going on.”

“We all knew about the places you couldn’t go,” said Marjorie Manne, a Squirrel Hill attorney who first went to Israel on a Community Day School eighth-grade trip nearly 30 years ago. “You couldn’t go to Tsfat. You couldn’t go to the Golan Heights. And you were much more aware of where the safe rooms were.”

Manne, though, said she felt safe — safer than she expected to feel. The patriotic fervor of some Israelis buoyed her and fellow travelers’ spirits.

Mission volunteers helping out in the agricultural sector (Photo courtesy of Brian Eglash via Hashomer Hachadash)
She also met several IDF soldiers and was struck by the age of those fighting in Gaza.

“These are kids,” said Manne, whose two children are in elementary school. “These are 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds.”

“I honestly expected a lot more vitriol,” she said. “There isn’t this hatred toward Palestinians. Everybody I spoke to was cognizant of the suffering on both sides.”

“Everyone just wants to live safely and raise their kids.”

Scott Seewald, who chairs the board of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, first traveled to Israel three decades ago, working for eight months at Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev.

June’s trip was his seventh visit to Israel.

“This is the Jewish homeland, this is our historical homeland and, since 1948, it’s been a place we Jews can go and feel very connected,” said Seewald, associate general counsel for Howmet
Aerospace, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and today lives in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. “Despite (the war), you could see in the people their strength, their resolve, their unity. I felt that stronger than ever on this recent trip.”

“What fire it really lit in me is to ensure we have other people going,” Manne added. “We need more people to understand the reality on the ground.”

“If people can go, they should go,” she added. “It’s also showing Israel and the Israeli people that Jews in the Diaspora care about them — and are behind them.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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